How gratitude, cooperation preceded the ‘miracle’ of Sunday’s historic live ‘Music & the Spoken Word’ broadcast

“Gently raise the sacred strain … ”

Loyal “Music & the Spoken Word” fans instantly recognize that Latter-day Saint hymn — penned over a century ago by W.W. Phelps — as the broadcast’s opening theme.

And, yes, on Sunday’s live broadcast of the venerable program, the musical strains were both gentle and sacred.

But there was also unmistakable excitement and enthusiasm. For the first time since March of 2020, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performed a live Sunday broadcast of “Music & the Spoken Word.”

Under the baton of music director Mack Wilberg, the choir was joined on the Conference Center stage by the Orchestra at Temple Square and the Bells at Temple Square. The choir was at full strength, unlike during the October 2021 general conference, where half the choir sang the first day and the other half the second.

Few people sits at the empty conference hall as choir conductor Mack Wilberg leads a rehearsal of Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as they perform their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Few people sits at the empty conference hall as choir conductor Mack Wilberg leads a rehearsal of Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as they perform their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

“We are thrilled to be here,” said Keith Willmore, who arrived at the Conference Center with his fellow choir members several hours before the 9:30 a.m. (MDT) broadcast for what has become routine COVID-19 testing since resuming rehearsals.

“Today’s broadcast is a dream come true. It is miraculous in many ways.”

Willmore can appreciate the miracles of today’s broadcast from multiple angles. As a bass singer, he is thrilled to be adding his voice for a live, global audience. He’s also a family physician and the medical director of Brigham Young University’s Student Health Center. He appreciates the ongoing testing and monitoring procedures in place to keep everyone safe.

“All of the precautions that have been taken are making a difference,” he said.

Outside of the musicians and essential choir and production personnel, the Conference Center was empty Sunday. The Sunday performances will not have a public audience until at least after the beginning of 2022.

Choir President Mike Leavitt is still settling into his fairly new calling. But he understood well the importance of Sunday’s live broadcast for legions of “Music & the Spoken Word” viewers.

Organist Richard Elliott plays as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square rehearses their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Organist Richard Elliott plays as the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square rehearses their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

In brief remarks to the musicians prior to Sunday’s broadcast, President Leavitt referenced Lehi’s vision where the Book of Mormon prophet/patriarch witnessed God sitting on His throne “surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8).

“In our mortal setting, this is as close as a concourse can be found,” he said. “Today, as we sing into the homes of millions of people around the world, it is our attitude of singing and praising God that will accompany, as it always has, moments of reflection, conversion and healing. 

“Let us sing today in a way that approximates and emulates the attitude of singing and praising God.”

He later told the Church News that Sunday’s live broadcast marks another historic step toward a sense of normality. “The world needs peace. The world needs unification. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square brings that.”

Ryan Murphy, the choir’s associate music director, said every person viewing Sunday’s historic performance arrives with different needs and circumstances. “We just hope that the music fills whatever need that they might have. We hope it will help them feel God’s love in a tangible way today.”

Broadcasting thanks and gratitude

The weekly “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast has not been silenced by the pandemic. Pre-recorded music from the choir has been used for each week’s broadcast, along with uplifting spoken messages presented by Lloyd D. Newell. New, often topical messages have been written and produced throughout the pandemic and added to each week’s broadcast.

Announcer Lloyd Newell takes a COVID-19 test ahead of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Announcer Lloyd Newell takes a COVID-19 test ahead of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square performance at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Aptly, Sunday’s live broadcast included music of gratitude such as “Glory to God on High” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” 

New music premiering Sunday included “We Thank Thee, Lord, for This New Day,” an organ solo performed by Richard Elliot titled “Praise and Thanksgiving” and the Latin American melody “Tuya Es La Gloria.”

Following Newell’s gratitude-themed spoken message, the broadcast concluded with a signature piece from the choir, orchestra and bells: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

Fans of “Music & the Spoken Word” likely noticed a few differences during Sunday’s broadcast. A new opening segment incorporated a new logo that was designed to complement the new choir visual identity introduced last year. The updated logo also signals to the audience that they are enjoying new content.

After airing, each broadcast of “Music & the Spoken Word” will be posted for immediate on-demand viewing on the choir’s YouTube channel and Facebook pages.

A few minutes before delivering his live message Sunday, Newell spoke of his own excitement of again being joined at a live broadcast by the iconic choir. “Listening to so many of my dear friends in the choir and the orchestra is an emotional thing for me,” he said. “I feel an overwhelming sense of thanksgiving for this moment after 20 months.”

The fruits of miracles

The choir’s medical director, Dr. David Palmer, said Sunday’s broadcast was the fruit of many miracles witnessed during the ongoing pandemic. Each miracle, he said, has been an answer to prayers.

A former choir member, Palmer lists several medical professionals and other specialists who are directly connected to the choir. Their shared expertise and cooperation are allowing the choir and other organizations to establish and practice COVID-19 protocols to keep people safe even while moving forward with performances and rehearsals.

Palmer has often asked for help. “And not one person has turned me down. Today’s program is going to be very emotional for a lot of people. Hopefully, we can touch people’s lives…. People need this like they need oxygen. They need to be fed spiritually. That’s why we are here.”

Dr. Sharlene Miner is an emergency physician and has sung alto in the choir for 11 years. Professionally, she knows well of the heavy impact exacted by the pandemic. Her hospital duties include caring for COVID-19 patients. 

But she has also missed performing with the choir for the Sunday broadcast. She too is grateful for the cooperation, professionalism and prayers of many that made Sunday’s live event possible. “We are so excited that we have a pathway that we can sing again and be together and make beautiful music.”

Hand bell performers rehearses during the Tabernacle Choir at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Hand bell performers rehearses during the Tabernacle Choir at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

The Bells at Temple Square director LeAnna Willmore said participating in Sunday’s broadcast was uplifting professionally and personally. There are 32 members of the hand-bell choir — and each is like a beloved family member for Willmore.

“I’ve missed them. I’ve prayed for them. They are a part of my life. We are just thrilled to be together,” said Willmore, who is anticipating a memorable bells season in 2022.

Even during the pandemic, choir leaders have discovered opportunities to stretch the organization’s global reach and influence, particularly over its popular social media platforms. 

“We have added 12 additional languages for the broadcast since the beginning of the pandemic,” said choir general manager Scott Barrick. The weekly “Music & the Spoken Word” broadcast is dubbed in Spanish, French and Portuguese. Subtitles have been added for several other languages.

All of the ongoing translation efforts and other developments, he noted, exist to accomplish a central purpose: “To give thanks and praise God for the opportunity to sing together and be emissaries for the Church.”

Choir conductor Mack Wilberg leads a rehearsal of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as they perform their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.
Choir conductor Mack Wilberg leads a rehearsal of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square as they perform their first Sunday morning music since the pandemic started at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. Credit: Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Correction: A photo caption previously misidentified Richard Elliott as Richard Turley.